One year ago we saw Breezy Point burning, the wind-whipped inferno across the bay glowing through Hurricane Sandy’s downpour. Turning away from the fire, and with water up to our chests, my partner and I focused on immediate concerns, like cheering up the man in the dinghy we were pulling through the surge to solid ground. The storm’s gale carried my voice as I shouted:
“MAYBE THE MAYANS WERE RIGHT!”
My partner, a fellow Iraq veteran and volunteer with the disaster response nonprofit Team Rubicon, chuckled in agreement. Looking between the two of us, the man we were freeing from the floodwaters gave a little laugh, a small victory.
For New York, Hurricane Sandy was a tragedy from which to recover. For the military veteran volunteers of Team Rubicon, it was a challenge to meet and an opportunity to serve again. Five of us showed up to volunteer the day before the storm hit, and hundreds more veterans would join to help get things back to normal. Our immediate work was the blackout in lower Manhattan, which, coupled with communications difficulties and malfunctioning generators, created scenes of panic and chaos. We worked night and day to combat both over the days that followed.
Sandy hit on a Monday, and it wasn’t until Wednesday that there was enough calm for me to head back to my apartment. I was in a daze, still wearing clothes stiffened with evaporated sea salt. Sleep had been a distant concept, relegated to a rare micro naps. Now, out of the blackout zone, I was seeing things. First oddity: power, open restaurants, people not in panic mode. Normalcy. It was weird, but not as weird as the goblins, ghosts, and other stock fiction figures mixing with the masses on the street. Assuming insomnia hallucinations, I kept my head down until it found a pillow, using a familiar excuse from Iraq: too much too soon, pack it away for now and figure things out later.
In the morning it came to me: yesterday was Halloween. I was a little disappointed: fantastic apparitions would have been more in keeping with the incredible things I’d seen in the days prior. We ran evacuation shelters, dealt with addicts tweaking for want of methadone, filled in for overwhelmed civilian volunteers, and sought to reign in the panic that arises in moments of stressful uncertainty. As each day brought fresh volunteers, working generators, and fewer problems, we were able to move on to greater challenges. At Team Rubicon, finishing one job doesn’t mean the work is done.
After decamping from the Manhattan shelters, we moved on to Queens and set up shop in the Rockaways, the neighborhood hardest hit by the storm. First on a street corner and then in a parking lot, we planted our flag and built out a large Forward Operating Base, similar to the sort of base we knew from Iraq and Afghanistan, to connect residents looking for help and volunteers offering it. In the course of six long weeks, and with the help of thousands of volunteers, we completed almost a thousand work orders to help bring the community back from the brink.
Team Rubicon started with the idea that veterans are masters in the art of creating order from chaos, and in the weeks after Sandy, that’s exactly what we did. We learned that by empowering volunteers at every level and creating a culture where everyone is willing to take on any task, volunteers were able to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. My civilian friends wondered why it was that none of us left, why it was that we were happy to endure such deprivation in a disaster zone. We were paid nothing, ate little, and slept less. They failed to see that what we lacked in traditional incentives — luxury, salary, comfort — we more than made up for in duty, mission, purpose. I had no answer for them; it’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t touched that certainty of purpose what it is to feel an energy quietly confirming you are exactly where you need to be.
That point was driven home to me one afternoon a few weeks into the recovery. One of our volunteers, a young ex-soldier who had spent three years overseas between Iraq and Afghanistan, was standing rigid and staring into the distance. I walked over, asked him if all was well, and without turning to me he answered: “These past two weeks have been the best thing I have done. Ever.” And with that, he quietly walked away. Moments later, a little old lady came to me, crying. I asked how we could help as she collapsed in my arms with a desperate hug. Her face was nestled into my chest, but I could still hear her repeating, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Too much, too soon. Pack it away until later, until I had some remove and could reflect on what it means to restore hope and rebuild homes for those marred by trauma.
Months after Sandy, the same Team Rubicon folks who’d volunteered there were out in Oklahoma after May’s tornado. After Oklahoma, the same volunteers rushed into Colorado and New Mexico to bail out victims of flooding, and worked this past weekend in Seaside Heights, NJ and Staten Island helping out in areas still recovering from the storm. One year later, with hundreds of jobs finished, our work goes on.